Statue of Liberty sinking into the sea

Reel Science

5 lessons from the most iconic climate documentary of all time

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was a watershed moment for climate change, but did it do enough?

Shutterstock

The most consequential thing Al Gore ever did was fail to become president of the United States. The second was to make An Inconvenient Truth.

I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth as a teenager in class, and while I don’t remember who I was sitting next to or anything else about the day, I do remember one thing clearly: a blood-red line careening higher and higher up a black graph until it practically disappeared into the vast darkness.

That was the image that first seared the climate crisis into my young memory, and it was more shocking than any scene from a horror movie I had ever watched — including The Ring, which made me terrified to step into a shower for weeks.

The glowing red line indicated rising carbon dioxide levels over the past century, which subsequently trapped heat in the atmosphere and led to shocking levels of global warming — 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. The line bore an uncanny resemblance to a heartbeat rhythm like the one you see on an electrocardiogram machine.

In the movie, Al Gore pointed to the line and plainly recited in his Tennessee drawl what the science had long established, that humans were causing our planet to warm at a rate not seen since prior to the dawn of our civilization — with disastrous consequences.

As I understood then, the line was Earth’s heartbeat — symbolically. But instead of flatlining, each incremental rise of the red line signified the unprecedented devastation of our planet as humans continued to emit fossil fuel-derived greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and increased carbon dioxide to levels not seen in 650,000 years. Countless individuals — myself included — can credit their climate change awakening to this single red line.

Al Gore stands next to an image of skyrocketing carbon dioxide emissions in An Inconvenient Truth.Participant/Lawrence Bender/Actual Films Productions

An Inconvenient Truth was perhaps the most significant documentary ever made in the US, and Hollywood recognized it by awarding the movie the award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Oscars. Rewatching the movie today, I’m struck by how eerily familiar it feels to the present day. I watched Gore talk about searing heat across the globe not long as Europe reported its hottest summer on record and China experienced the most severe droughts in modern history.

But memory is a fickle thing, and the glaring urgency of An Inconvenient Truth faded with time — just as the climate crisis hit the gas. More than half of all emissions in human history have been released in the past 30 years, so in the years since the movie has come out, we’ve taken a bad situation and made it much, much worse. Nowadays, people rarely think of Al Gore or his seminal movie, even thoughts the scientific and moral lessons are clearly just as relevant as ever

We have failed to heed the clarion call of An Inconvenient Truth, but it's not too late to start now. More than 15 years after its release, An Inconvenient Truth offers four simple truths that we’d do well to remember if we are to take action on climate change and avert untold human suffering.

Lesson 5: The climate crisis isn’t too complex to explain

An Inconvenient Truth isn’t that striking from a cinematic or storytelling lens, so why did it win the Oscar for Best Documentary? It’s because Gore spoke plainly about climate change in a way that made sense to the average citizen, who doesn’t spend their days poring over scientific papers.

In one of the movie’s most memorable moments, Gore steps onto a raised platform that starts low and goes higher and higher as carbon dioxide levels on the screen next to him skyrocket over the latter half of the twentieth century. This allows viewers to visualize how warmer temperatures — linked to carbon dioxide — will skyrocket out of control if we continue burning fossils without restraint for the next fifty years.

“In 650,000 years, the carbon dioxide level has never gone above 350 parts per million. Here is where [it] is now: way above where it’s ever been,” Gore says, pointing to the high line on the bar graph.

Scientists, climate reporters, and activists and need to use similarly clear visuals and language to explain how extreme weather events — like flooding and droughts — will increase drastically in the coming months and years due to climate change.

Lesson 4: We need to counter misinformation

The scientific community has known for years that human activity is the primary cause of our current global warming. Yet, when reporters link extreme weather events to climate change, many people still respond by stating that the incident is simply natural weather patterns or cyclical shifts in climate that have occurred before.

Such misinformation is nothing new — and it’s been heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry — though the proliferation of it on social media is far more relevant now than when Al Gore made his movie. Still, we can take some helpful cues from how Gore tackles misinformation in An Inconvenient Truth.

For example, in response to common retorts that the amount of warming we’re facing isn’t so bad compared to periods of prior warming, Gore points to a line graph that shows blue temperature dips — like the last Ice Age — contrasted against warm temperature spikes — in red — over millions of years. According to Gore, even the smallest blue dip means a mile of ice over our heads. By comparison, the modern heat spike is astronomically larger than the small blue dip for the last Ice Age. Gore looks at the audience with a grim chuckle and asks a question that perfectly dispels the misinformation:

The so-called skeptics look at this and say, well, that seems perfectly okay. Well…If this much on the cold side is a mile of ice over our heads, how much would that much on the warm side be?

Lesson 3: We’re all in this together, but some will suffer more

No one on planet Earth is spared from climate change — Gore makes that clear when he flashes from record-breaking temperatures on the eastern seaboard of the US to southern India.

But the documentary also flashes key clips of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, illuminating how environmental injustice means certain communities are more vulnerable.

In the U.S., minority-majority and lower-income communities suffer disproportionately more from air pollutants that worsen climate change too. Billions of people across the world will face deadly heat and flooding this century, but the majority of people most exposed to heat and drought live in lower-income countries in the Global South.

Lesson 2: Moonshot tech can help us, but it won’t fix global warming alone

In one of the film’s more comedic sequences, Gore plays a clip from the animated science fiction show, Futurama. In it, an older man explains how they’ll “solve” global warming to a crying child:

Our handsome politicians came up with a last-minute solution. We just drop a giant ice cube into the ocean every now and then. Of course, since the greenhouse gases are building up, it takes more and more ice each time. Thus solving the problem once and for all.

Futurama’s proposed solution is obviously absurd, but it feels similar to the way fossil fuel companies believe we can continue emitting greenhouse gases simply by betting on moonshot carbon dioxide capture and sequestration technology — in other words, giant vacuums that will suck up carbon dioxide from the air the moment we release these pollutants, preventing them from warming the atmosphere.

Without a doubt, a future free of carbon emissions will necessitate some development of these technologies — even Gore says as much, but they’re not a miracle solution. Plus, the technology will still take some years to develop into a reliable, cost-effective form. More natural methods of carbon sequestration, like tree planting, could be a surer bet in the short-term — so long as they’re planted the right way.

Lesson 1: We have all the tools we need to combat the climate crisis

Instead, as Gore says, we have the means to fix the climate crisis right now — we don’t need to wait for a miracle technology but instead focus on developing the tools in front of us.

In the years since An Inconvenient Truth came out, renewable energy technologies like wind and solar have become increasingly cost-effective, generating ten percent of global energy in 2021. Further, recent research shows subsidies for electric vehicles like Tesla could help push the electric vehicle sector to a positive tipping point, making these cars cheaper and more accessible. Such systemic changes, along with billions in climate change funding through measures like the Inflation Reduction Act, will expedite our road to a fossil fuel-free existence.

We can fight the overwhelming power of climate doom and fossil fuel misinformation — and Gore’s final words in the documentary remind us that there is still a reason to push for a better future:

“There are some people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of doing something about the problem. We already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem. We have everything we need, save perhaps for political will.”

An Inconvenient Truth is streaming on Paramount Plus and other platforms with a Showtime subscription, including Hulu and Amazon Prime.